BDA-3 DAC (Digital-to-Analog Converter)
More Canadian than Darryl Sittler sipping a double-double from Tim Hortons while handing Terry Fox an autographed #27 Maple Leaf Jersey at the Toronto City Hall, Bryston has been manufacturing consumer electronics out of Peterborough Ontario since the early 1970s. Today, Bryston sells a vast array of audio products including amps, preamps, digital products, speakers and even a turntable. In this review, we look at the BDA-3 ($3,495), Bryston’s current flagship Digital to Analog Converter (DAC). What’s a DAC you ask? You may not know it, but if you listen to music then you use a DAC all the time. The DAC is a device that’s responsible for converting digital audio to an analog signal that’s audible by the human ear (and played by speakers or headphones). The DAC sits between the music source (CD player, your smartphone, laptop, etc) and your amplifier and is critically important in the overall quality of the music we hear. A high quality DAC can make all the difference in the sound of your home or headphone music system.
DESIGN & FEATURES
The BDA-3 is Bryston’s first DAC to include DSD conversion. The unit can convert PCM, DSD, and DoP (DSD over PCM) encoded digital signals. The BDA-3’s front panel has three vertical rows of LEDs. The first two rows indicate what the incoming PCM digital signal sampling rate is. The third row shows which DSD sampling rate is being fed into the unit. There’s one ‘On/Off’ button located to the far right side and one ‘Upsample’ button. There are also individual buttons for all of its inputs. An optional remote control (the BR- 2) costs $250 extra. Users can upsample PCM streams by multiples of 44.1 KHz or 48KHz through the S/PDiF inputs. It’s not possible to upsample either native DSD or DoP signals. The BDA-3 features two AKM decoding chips which can convert binary PCM-encoded signals up to 32-bit / 384 KHz resolution and DSD code up to 4 x natively. The unit offers an immense number of audio source inputs - a whopping total of 10. These include 4 x HDMI; 2 x Asynchronous USB; S/ PDiF over BNC, RCA, or Toslink (i.e. optical) connectors; and 1 x balanced (AES/EBU). Computer based music players and servers, SACD players, Blu-ray transports, TVs, and digital media players can all pass hi-res digital code up to the DSD-512 or 32/384 PCM level through the BDA-3’s USB inputs; or up to 24/192 PCM signals through its
The unit also has one HDMI digital output, one pair of single-ended RCA analog outputs, and one pair of balanced XLR analog outputs. For control applications, the BDA-3 comes with an RS-232 interface port, a USB control port, and an Ethernet jack.
Chipsets alone do not guarantee good sonics. Achieving true high-end sound also depends on the quality of the power supply, the way in which the D-to-A conversion is done, and the quality of the output stage.
The power supply in the BDA-3 is linear, not switched. And it uses a fully balanced dual-differential DAC. This means that there are no phase-splitters anywhere in the signal path. Bryston claims that integrated circuits (ICs) “…limit the bandwidth and dynamic range of so many other DACs.” Accordingly, there are no ICs anywhere in the BDA-3’s proprietary solid state analog output section. To learn more technical details about the BDA-3, I encourage you to visit www.bryston.com.
Kicking off my listening sessions, I conducted a number of comparison tests between Bryston’s BDA-1 DAC and their latest BDA-3 model, using PCM music files. The BDA-3 consistently created better resolution, a much wider and deeper soundstage and smoother pace, rhythm and timing (PRaT). It also offered superior lowlevel detail retrieval compared to Bryston’s first DAC- the PCM-only model BDA-1.
For perspective, I fed the BDA-3 with PCM streams from several reference CD transports and also compared it to a number of $5K to $15K-level tube and solid state outboard DACs.
With PCM signals, the BDA-3 separated individual instruments within a huge 3-dimensional soundstage and painted instrumental timbres with a palpable matter-of-factness and immediacy.
Its sound was direct and exact; as opposed to offering tube-like warmth and liquidity. Neutrality is its forte. It will tell you how good, bad, or downright ugly the sound quality of the digital signal that’s coming into it truly is.
This DAC doesn’t pull punches. If the recording’s superb, it’ll create a sound that will move your soul. If the sonics are ugly, the sound will make you cringe.
For DSD-encoded signals, I listened to several hi-res DSD versions of Patricia Barber’s Modern Cool on SACD and hi-res files from my laptop and various portable digital media players.
The BDA-3 consistently recreated the complex rhythms of her songs ‘Winter’, ‘Touch of Trash’, ‘Light My Fire’, ‘Post Modern Blues,’ ‘Let it Rain’, and ‘Silent Partner’ with remarkably accurate PRaT, musical coherency, and exacting detail.
Achieving a believable sense of the striking micro and macro-dynamic rhythmic shifts contained within Barber’s songs is a challenge to the best of sources. With most DACs, you can’t hear—let alone feel—the subtle touch of her nimble fingers on the piano’s keys and strings. The BDA-3 revealed the layered textures and timbres of individual instruments heard on Modern Cool with a realism and authenticity that was a pleasure to listen to.
The Dead Weather is a heavy-alternative super group comprised of Alison Mosshart (lead vocals), Jack Lawrence (bass), Dean Fertita (lead guitar), and Jack White (drums). Their debut album Horehound was released in 2009 and features heavy-handed guitar lines, aggressive rhythms, and inspired drums and percussion.
Their songs toss elements of the blues, psychedelic rock, and garage punk into a post-apocalyptic blender and pour out a sound that’s fairly unique. If you liked what Jack White did with the White Stripes, you’ll very likely enjoy The Dead Weather.
Bryston’s flagship DAC rendered Mosshart’s vocals with a stunning clarity and a knife- edged tension that was both captivating and, at times, unnerving. With songs like ‘ Hang You from the Heavens’, ‘I Cut like a Buffalo’, ‘Treat Me like your Mother’, ‘Pony’, and ‘Will there be Enough Water?’, the BDA-3 created an immense amount of sonic detail across the entire frequency spectrum. And, thankfully, this detail was harmonically accurate, while not causing the typical ringing high-band listening fatigue which most solid state DACs induce.
With hi-res DSD files, soundstage height, width, and depth were all physically larger with the BDA-3 in the digital playback chain. This enhanced 3-dimensionality included more accurate positioning of individual instruments within the soundstage. The result…? Music of many genres was consistently much more intense and involving.
The BDA-3’s PRaT wasn’t quite as smooth or warm as $10K+ level tube DACs. And yet, the BDA-3’s dynamic range was reference caliber. On several occasions, this DAC’s ‘startle’ factor when the volume increased from whisper-to-scream intensity levels, indeed, startled me.
Bryston’s goals with the BDA-3 were: one, to unleash a reference caliber DAC for traditional audiophiles; and two, to also offer computer users top shelf 2-channel sound from USB and HDMI interfaces via state-ofthe-art ultra high bit D-to-A conversion.
The BDA-3’s low-level detail recovery, musicality, and neutrality are all reference caliber. With countless songs, Bryston’s flagship DAC re-created the musicians’ intentions with far greater clarity, insight, and perspicacity than I’ve ever heard before; especially with SACDs and native DSDencoded digital files.
No other outboard DAC that exists today offers so many connectivity options, has such a goosebump inducing sound quality, and, by audiophile standards, has such a reasonable price.